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The Real Rahm Emanuel Scandal


It was reported yesterday that Rahm Emanuel apologized for calling certain liberal Democrats “f—— retarded” as they sought to put the heat on conservative Democrats during negotiations in the House over medical care. Apparently, Emanuel rendered his apology to Tim Shriver, who is head of the Special Olympics. He apologized, that is, to a Kennedy, and Shriver readily gave cover to Emanuel by accepting his apology.

But what apology was rendered — and what did Shriver accept? Was it merely that Emanuel had slipped, making artlessly explicit and public a sentiment he truly held? Or did Shriver ask him whether he apologized for the conviction that people with Down’s syndrome were so impaired as human beings that they had lives not worth living? After all, Emanuel’s term of insult was not the expletive, but the word “retarded.”

Sarah Palin has recorded her own outrage over Emanuel’s language, but she too seems to have missed the deeper issue: Emanuel’s comment reflects the understanding, widely held among the “bioethicists” attached to this administration — including his own brother, working in the White House — that people with Down’s syndrome do not enjoy a high “quality of life.”

Palin ought to be asking these questions:

–Would children like her son Trig be denied care under a government-run health-care system? Would their lives be considered less “worth living”?

–Does Emanuel think that women would be justified in aborting babies who were likely to be afflicted with Down’s syndrome? Would he respect their decision to have those abortions on the grounds that they do not think children with Down’s syndrome have lives worth living?

–Would Emanuel think it permissible to end the lives of people walking around, well out of the womb, who happen to have Down’s syndrome? If not, what is the difference? Surely it cannot be that those walking around have evaded or survived the prospect of abortion, for his own president became famous for refusing to protect infants who had survived an abortion.

Emanuel’s embarrassment involves more than just a slip of the tongue — it involves a deeply planted moral understanding. The greater embarrassment is that the real moral issue seems to have gone unnoticed, both by the journalists covering the story and by the people taking offense at Emanuel’s comment.

– Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and was the architect of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act.